I first saw Laurence Olivier’s ‘oysters and snails’ speech to Tony Curtis, not in Spartacus itself, but rather in The Celluloid Closet. In that scene, Olivier argues to his slave that sexuality is a matter of taste, rather than of appetite, and being a matter of taste, is not a moral consideration. “It could be argued so, Master” says Curtis. The Celluloid Closet was part of a queer studies class I took as a junior in college, at which time my own preferences had already ossified. ‘Skinny Jewish intellectuals’ was my taste, rather than a moral judgment on chubby Gentile fools.

***

Years later, I was in New Orleans with my skinny Jewish intellectual, for a conference. He had never eaten raw oysters before, his father having instilled in him the fear of Vibrio vulnificus, rather than Leviticus. We sat at open-air bar at Felix’s, and, around us, was the sultry autumn air, the sound of granular ice, and quick-fingered men with shucking knives and chain mail gloves.  “OK,” he said, “I’ll try one,” and several dozens later, the area was around us a denuded shoal, a mother-of-pearl graveyard.  “Oh, I’ve missed out on so much,” he bemoaned. “I lived in Boston and never had any oysters.”

***

Censors suggested replacing ‘oysters’ and ‘snails’ with ‘artichokes’ and ‘truffles,’ but even after Kubrick reshot the scene, they cut it, leaving audiences, presumably, to wonder why Curtis’ slave has a sudden attack of drapetomania. And while could be argued that the scene dealt with sexuality in a progressive way, for 1960, it might be that the screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, conceived of the scene much differently.  According to Howard Fast, the author of the novel, the more abstract decadences of starvation or slavery were inconceivable to Hollywood types.  But sexuality—this was a decadence that Hollywood could understand.  Most people in Hollywood either knew someone who indulged in it, Fast says, or indulged in it themselves.

***

Matthew and I know oysters. We know the different types: the briny ones from Maine, the mineral tang of those from Prince Edward Island, the creamy flesh of Puget Sound breeds. We don’t slather them in cocktail sauce, but opt instead for a shallot-champagne mignonette or, if that’s not available, a squeeze of lemon and a dab of horseradish. Escargot is fussy: handling the little forks, and maneuvering the shells out of that specialized divoted pan. No, when we feel decadent, it’s much easier to slide an oyster whole into your mouth, liquid and all, even if ‘decadence’ is relative, and, of course, a matter of taste.

***

I learned recently that the ‘oysters and snails’ scene is a reconstruction—the audio long since lost. Tony Curtis, almost 30 years later, re-recorded his lines, and Anthony Hopkins was brought in to dub Olivier’s. Kubrick supervised via his fax machine from England. But even in its cobbled-together state, it still has a delicious charge to it: filmed from behind a gauzy curtain, the two men half-naked and oiling each other up.  “It is all a matter of taste, isn’t it?” Olivier says, before concluding: “My taste includes both snails and oysters.”

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